Little serious thought has been devoted to the trophy wife, that caricature permanently relegated to being an adornment on the arm of a spouse defined by his wealth and power, the May to her husband’s December. In 1994, New York Times “On Language” columnist William Safire compiled a brief history of the term “trophy wife.” She was, originally, a gold digger who probably didn’t care much for the man to whom she was bound until death did they part. She is understood to be a second—or third—wife, a younger replacement for the peer-aged woman her husband originally wed. By definition she is a status symbol, more object than person. Following this he/she dichotomy, both husband and wife are understood to be heterosexual, and, traditionally, they are also both likely to be white—although, in 2009, Marie Claire magazine did proclaim that Asian women were the “new” trophy wives.
Safire cited the words of Sally Hay Burton, Richard Burton’s fourth and final wife, who was more than 20 years his junior: “The golden rule if you are a trophy wife is that you do not stray while the old man is still alive.” The conventional wisdom has been that a trophy wife knows exactly what is expected of her. Both feminists and antifeminists feel disdain for the trophy wife. While feminists see her willingness to trade on beauty and her presumed lack of ambitions beyond marriage as a failure of their ideals, antifeminists see her as a corruption of the “traditional womanhood” they prize, and as a homewrecker wantonly intruding on first marriages. In her essay “Fortune Favors the Trophy Wife,” which criticized no-fault divorce laws, Phyllis Schlafly painted them as “flashy, trim babes” who “connived to get the married ceo to succumb to their wiles.”
These days, though, the triumph of the trophy wife is in evidence nearly every place one might look. She’s a “Real Housewife” in every city across the country; she’s a “Footballers’ Wife”; she’s part of a “Modern Family.” We see her multi-carat diamonds and designer clothing, we see her posing demurely with a baby bump, we see her looking haunted when her professional athlete or politician husband’s affair becomes, suddenly, very public. She pops up on the society pages, on reality television, on gossip blogs. And since the media loves a tarnished trophy, we see even more of her if she gets dumped or divorced—as if that’s the comeuppance she deserves for marrying for money (we presume), or being with someone rich and famous (who, of course, will always be pursued by other women), or, (the ultimate sin) accessing wealth that she didn’t earn and must not deserve. We watch Real Housewives, after all, with a mix of escapism and envy when things go well, and schadenfreude, not sympathy, when they don’t. We dismiss and deride the trophy wife, but we don’t acknowledge society’s role in creating her.
Director Lauren Greenfield began filming the new documentary The Queen of Versailles in 2007, a fact that seems more prophetic than coincidental. Originally, the film was an attempt to chronicle the lives of David Siegel, a timeshare resort billionaire; his wife, Jackie; and their eight children. At the film’s start, the family is in the midst of building a 90,000-square-foot home in Orlando, Florida, from the balconies of which they can watch fireworks at Disney World. The Siegels named this home Versailles, which both reveals the extent of hubris at play and serves as an ironic footnote to their ultimate humbling—a humbling that comes swiftly and absolutely with the bursting of the real-estate bubble and pursuant economic collapse. The film is primarily about the hyperbole of their life, but the riches-to-rags story draws a big enough radius around the Siegels to also be about the recession and broader economic power inequalities.
We see Jackie’s chauffeur, a former millionaire, washing cars; we see one of the children’s nannies, a woman from the Philippines, delighted to live in their old playhouse while sending money to her son, whom she hasn’t seen in two decades. But, as evidenced by its title, The Queen of Versailles is Jackie’s story. The third Mrs. Siegel is a former beauty queen 30 years her husband’s junior. She spends money thoughtlessly and frivolously, even after the financial collapse, buying multiple copies of the board game Operation and a bike for her son, even though dozens of unused children’s bikes are piled haphazardly in their oversize garage. She’s so ensconced in her billionaire bubble that, after a rare instance of flying commercial and renting a car, she asks the representative behind the Hertz counter, “What’s my driver’s name?” She embodies every stereotype of trophy wifedom: the age gap, the apparent empty-headedness, the ample décolletage, and an obliviousness to her family’s financial reality that renders her dependent.
Greenfield’s previous works have delved into social issues at the intersection of womanhood, beauty, consumerism, and social class. Her 2006 documentary Thin explored a year in the life of residents at a clinic for eating disorders; her 2008 short film Kids and Money and 2004 photo project “Fast Forward” both explored consumption and youth culture across income levels in Southern California; and her 2003 photo book and traveling exhibit Girl Culture (see Bitch no. 20) mined the “dark side to the exhibitionism of modern femininity.” Greenfield is no newcomer to the complexity of the issues brought up by The Queen of Versailles, and the way she presents Jackie and David’s stories intentionally explores not just their marriage and their lives, but the cultural context for their relationship.
While her home remains half built and millions of dollars’ worth of imported marble, Fabergé eggs, and antique furniture sit in storage, we begin to see more of Jackie, and more of a complex narrative around women, wealth, and what society truly values. Jackie was not born wealthy (nor, for that matter, was her husband). She grew up in a working-class family in upstate New York, where most young women went on to work as secretaries at the local IBM Global Services facility. But Jackie put herself through college at Rochester Institute of Technology, where she was one of the only women in her class, and earned a degree as a computer engineer. Somewhere between RIT and the Mrs. Florida pageant, sometime around the end of an abusive first marriage but well before meeting David Siegel, Jackie discovered there was an alternative investment to be made. She saw that there was, literally, more value in her appearance than in her degree; she found that, in a culture with a very specific ideal of femininity, it was more lucrative to leverage her beauty as economic capital than to accumulate wealth herself.
Sociologist Catherine Hakim coined the term “erotic capital” to define this power, writing in her 2011 book of the same name that the quality goes “beyond beauty to include sex appeal, charm and social skills, physical fitness and liveliness, sexual competence, and skills in self-presentation.” Along with economic capital (how much money you have), social capital (who you know), and cultural capital (what you know about how to succeed in the culture in which you live), erotic capital is its own form of privilege. And in capitalist societies where men’s access to sex with women is valued (is there a capitalist society this does not describe?), it makes sense that erotic capital can be leveraged into economic capital. This is the power that Jackie is leveraging; as Greenfield comments in a recent interview, “It’s a really important reflection of the culture, and it’s a choice [Jackie’s] not alone in making. We live in a culture where beauty has a real currency.”
Not everyone agrees with Hakim’s generally approving ideas about erotic capital, of course, and reviewers and fellow sociologists have taken issue with her generalizations about, for instance, the types of emotional work for which women are suited, her definitions of what constitutes sexual attractiveness, and her assertions about how much sex men and women are interested in having. And there are inherent limitations to basing power on something as tenuous and ephemeral as erotic capital. In the context of The Queen of Versailles, one such drawback is Jackie’s fear of her own obsolescence. Jackie looks uneasy when David jokes with Miss America 2009 Katie Stam that he’s going to make her his fourth wife, or when he says that when Jackie turns 40 he’s going to exchange her for two 20-year-olds. Hakim unequivocally equates erotic capital with youth, which is a problematic generalization. But, for Siegel at least, it seems to ring true—which means that, as Jackie ages, her erotic capital decreases. When we see her getting Botox treatments near the end of the film, it serves only as confirmation that her youth was a large part of her original value. As Greenfield states, that’s a symptom of a larger problem:
Girls realize at an early age the power of their body, and that part of their power as women comes from that. And I think that’s a dangerous path for the culture, especially as women age…. It’s really hard, when you’ve gotten some of your power from your body, to confront the aging process and that loss. I think it’s kind of a trap, but I also think people are adaptive. My work is more about exposing the culture than condemning the culture, because I think in the context of the culture, people are making adaptive and smart choices.
Ultimately, what should be objectionable about Jackie is that she’s a profligate spender, an out-of-touch, overprivileged woman in an inequitable society—not that she’s a trophy wife. We cannot hold that against her without holding the rest of society accountable for encouraging her to become one.
But can the trophy wife be something different altogether? Is there another way to be a trophy wife, a way that doesn’t cater to or embody the basest elements of an oppressive system? Because even as the stereotypical trophy-wife image proliferates in media and pop culture, some seem to want it to become something else completely. I began thinking about the trophy-wife archetype while in college—somewhere between reading Lisa Belkin’s now-infamous 2003 New York Times article “The Opt-Out Revolution” (about Princeton-educated, professionally degreed women choosing to stay at home to parent their children), and Linda Hirshman’s 2005 American Prospect piece “Homeward Bound,” which argued that the opt-outers were making a bad choice: “Princeton President Shirley Tilghman described the elite colleges’ self-image perfectly when she told her freshmen last year that they would be the nation’s leaders, and she clearly did not have trophy wives in mind.” (Hirshman expanded these arguments in her 2006 book Get to Work.)
In the interim, Facebook had arrived on my New England college campus, and I watched, puzzled, as many of my classmates formed a new group on the site: “Future Trophy Wives of America”—and cringed when I saw the number of women that actually joined. Trophy wives? Shouldn’t highly educated women at a prestigious college want something else? Was it their aspiration to be rich, or merely young and beautiful? The latter seemed petty and short-sighted, not ambitious enough to be proclaimed one’s future goal. It was the money, then. But surely there were other ways for these talented, educated women to attain wealth. It felt to me, in some way, to be an abandonment of the education they were still completing, a way of making their own earning potential less important. For some of these women, educational attainment and marital ambitions were dual paths to a level of wealth and comfort—but they seemed more in conflict than concert.
With its original connotations of gold digging, the label of “trophy wife” was meant to ridicule women for embodying the faults of all of society. (It was also, perhaps, meant to mock and scorn those who pursued them: the bumbling men past their prime, trying to recapture their own vitality and virility through a younger wife; the cold-hearted cads abandoning first families in favor of a woman who represented a life with less responsibility.) What is interesting about women labeling themselves “Future Trophy Wives,” then, is the actual embrace of the label. For those who self-apply it, the term seems to be no longer a slur, no longer synonymous with a ditzy diamond-seeker. William Safire asked in 1994, “Is the trophy wife a mere armpiece, or even a bimbo? Or is she a new and attractive partner in power, successful in her own right?” The idea took root: A 2004 Psychology Today article titled “The New Trophy Wife” argued that American men are increasingly seeking out “power brides,” noting that “men want the most impressive achiever in the office.”
In the 2009 Marie Claire article that crowned Asian women the hot new trophy wives, writer Ying Chu argued for a redefinition of the term, pointing out that “most current trophies of choice are far more than exotic arm candy. They are accomplished musicians and journalists, they have Ivy League mbas and hail from prestigious political families.” (The fact that the women whom Chu spoke of in the article, from Woody Allen’s stepdaughter/spouse Soon-Yi Previn to executive Wendi Deng, wife of Rupert Murdoch, are so different from one another speaks both to the persistent fetishization of nonwhite cultures, and the way different paths to wealth—truly, any path to wealth—seems to be viewed as a valid achievement of the American Dream.) And, more recently, Catherine Hakim included Michelle Obama on her list of people with erotic capital—though she also included Mrs. Obama’s husband.
Because the concept of the trophy wife has always been essentially about status, when well-educated, well-heeled women are labeled (or label themselves) as such, this shift can be interpreted as a form of progress in which women’s prestige and value are associated with more than youth and beauty. Or can it? I suspect it’s not progress at all, and if it is, I still don’t like what we’re progressing toward. What does it mean to redefine the term “trophy wife” when the new version is a false idol? When a rich man marries a woman with her own slew of degrees and accomplishments, and perhaps even her own wealth, he’s not marrying a trophy, he’s marrying a peer. To label her a trophy wife turns the most ambitious and accomplished of American women into objects, merely by virtue of becoming a wife.
As women continue to make less money than their male counterparts, as their work is, across the spectrum, less valued, as gender bias in hiring persists, as inflexible workplaces make it more and more difficult to navigate the gendered work balance between family and career, it is not becoming easier for women to have it all. In fact, it seems more impossible than ever. Maybe it’s not at all surprising that trophy wifedom is still an enticing option. If being a trophy wife provides a way out, provides an alternate path to privilege, and somehow represents a more interesting, more fulfilling life, why shouldn’t it be desirable? In reflecting on Jackie’s choice to pursue the path that led her to David Siegel, Lauren Greenfield comments, “We know the limits of where corporate life can take you. And we’ve seen the disappointment [and] the flaws in that part of the American dream, too. There isn’t the financial stability in that kind of life that we thought, or that was sold to us.”
So while the dream of the trophy wife is not the American dream most of us had in mind, capitalizing on erotic power in contemporary times might be no riskier than entering the paid workforce. In our flawed culture, as Greenfield points out, it might be an adaptive choice—and it certainly might be more fun. Either way, it’s definitely a reminder of something that many of us shy away from considering: namely, that marriage has been a financial arrangement for far longer than it’s been based on an ideal as nebulous as love. In 1768, the young Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen of Austria was described by her tutor as “lazy” and “frivolous”; she could not read or write in French, despite her mother’s admonishments that she learn to do so. When it was time for her to be married, a French doctor was imported to perform oral surgery to straighten her teeth, and a Parisian hairdresser arrived to do something about her uneven hairline.
At age 15, she was sent to the Austrian border, where, in a pavilion on the Île des Épis on the Rhine built especially for the occasion, she shed all of her belongings, crossed the border, and began her life as wife to the Dauphin of France. When things got off to a rocky start, she was coached—at length—on how her absolute first priority should be seducing and “carnally pleasing” her husband. Frivolous, young, beautiful, surgically enhanced, capitalizing on her erotic potential: The two Queens of Versailles perhaps had more in common than their penchant for overspending and their precipitous undoings. Or, perhaps, given the size of Marie Antoinette’s dowry and her Habsburg lineage (a “prestigious political family” if ever there was one), and given Jackie’s college degree and professional career, they’re both more like other “partners in power” trophy wives. Or maybe, more than anything else, both were just trying to be successful in worlds were women’s power is limited, and each discovered one way to capture it. When Greenfield suggests that Jackie’s story is “a fascinating, kind of unconventional, but I think very modern story of female empowerment,” she’s not suggesting that Jackie’s story itself is a modern tale.
It isn’t—it’s age old. But what might be new is the assertion that this story is somehow empowering, an assertion that is sure to trouble anyone who knows just how hard generations of women have worked to establish that they have more going for them than their looks and pedigrees. Greenfield concedes that erotic capital is “something that my mother’s generation of Radcliffe feminists would not understand. But the young generation really does take ownership of that power from their bodies and sexuality, and uses that, for better or worse.” The trophy wives of America, varied as they are, did not bring us to this place. Our culture did. Erotic capital can be fleeting, its market value can be challenged, and its possession can be more subjective than other forms of capital. But the trophy wife cannot exist in isolation; she can only be a part of the culture that created her. She is the product of a collision of grossly flawed social values: preoccupation with material wealth, rampant consumerism, and unattainable, unhealthy standards of feminine beauty. She’s the result of the worst intersections of capitalism and patriarchy. And she’s a reminder that we live in a world that continues to embrace both.